The Journey That Led Me to Get Tested for Autism at 50 — Part One
It’s been a few months since I publicly wrote about being tested for autism. The response has been overwhelmingly positive and supportive, and I appreciate it from the bottom of my heart.
A question often asked is, why did you get tested? It is a fair question given this testing was a surprise to my friends and family including myself. However, there isn’t a simple answer, rather, it is a journey. I invite all who are willing to get messy and uncomfortable to sojourn with me in this series.
My autism journey began in prison on an island off the small, beautiful country of Guyana in South America. Our family has served on mission on almost every continent for years. That summer we found ourselves part of a team we now call family. We took small, wooden boats, which stored gasoline in milk jugs and hosted drivers as boat taxis, to a prison banished on a tiny island.
The flat-bottomed boats slapped hard against the wake of passing fishing vessels, leaving us scrambling to find horizon lines to fix our gaze upon to avoid getting seasick. These are boat rides the likes of which we’ve never experienced and can be a ride one never fully gets used to. We landed at the prison originally erected through European colonization in 1814, and from appearances little has changed since it was first established. It is amazingly self-sustaining, with guards and their families sharing the island and its chores of growing their own food, maintaining the property, etc. with the inmates. They coexist in a unique symbiotic relationship like nothing I’ve ever seen.
Once we de-boarded, the boat taxis left us on the island for the day. This remote landscape boasts maximum security over men waiting for arraignment and inmates serving up to life sentences for the worst of crimes. The island is surround by piranha and caiman, making a swim to freedom especially dangerous.
Inmates helped us carry our equipment from the loading dock to the main gate before it locked behind us.
Our team led several ministries including foot washing and giving the men new toothbrushes, toothpaste, and flip flops. I also shared my testimony of God’s faithfulness in a large group setting.
One teammate, directing inmates to the foot washing, motioned to me that an inmate asked for me specifically to wash his feet, but I was not keen on this request. As a woman, I didn’t want to be singled out for any reason in a men’s maximum-security prison.
I was especially hesitant to talk to him because I noticed during my speaking that he stared at me the entire time. It was unnerving to say the least. Nonetheless, we were there to serve, and our leaders vetted the safety of the situation and I trusted them. Borrowing my team’s courage, I swallowed hard, drew a deep breath, then smiled and motioned for him to come to my foot bath.
He sat down in front of me and slipped off his old, ratty flip flops. I asked his name and began to wash his feet.
He openly shared his story with me about the man he had killed and how he found the Lord in prison. This would be the first of prisons we would serve in, and I thought to myself, “I’ve never touched another human being who has killed someone outside of the line of duty.” It was surreal.
After I finished washing his feet, he tried on his new flip flops and offered to help us carry our equipment across the island to the mess hall where we were to set up for the next service. Picking up a piece of heavy equipment, the man looked at me and said, “I used to lead a men’s bible study here. There were four men, but now there is only me. One-by-one they dropped out because here on this island we have nothing. You can’t have a bible study without something to study.”
Everything changed in that moment. E.V.E.R.Y.T.H.I.N.G. I looked at him as I melted under the hot South American summer sun, and there was silence between us. What happened next is exactly how it went down.
The Holy Spirit blew between us so strongly it almost knocked me over; not in a physical sense, and the man didn’t know it, but in a spiritual sense it was as real as the sun’s scorching heat, and it left me speechless. In that moment, the Lord spoke to me and said, “You have what they need. You have what they need on your computer.”
Pause this moment. Back up ten years.
I was a stay-at-home mom. For reasons I can’t explain, the Lord compelled me to write a bible study. No one asked me to do it. I had never been published. This was only between God and me. I shrugged it off at first feeling grossly unqualified, but God can be quite persistent. I eventually gave in to the calling and it became my primary focus. Every day after I drove our kids to school, I came home, sat at my computer with the Bible open on my desk, and said the same thing, “Okay God, what do you want to write today?”
I had no agenda of my own. There was no outline, genre, or audience in mind. I simply sat down and wrote as he led. It took me over a year to write this six-week, 30-lesson, 140-page study. After it was complete, I gathered a focus group of men and women ages 17 to 75. They came from all different denominational backgrounds as well as a broad range of demographics. They were extremely generous with their time to read and work through this study and offer suggestions; then I tweaked it some more. After this, I asked two of our church’s pastors to read it. They did so and gave it their blessing. This entire process took five years from inception.
Finally, the written content was complete. As a photographer, I was elated to get to work on the cover art, however God gave me a firm, “No.” Surprised, I inquired why I couldn’t give it some artistic flare. He told me that the study needs to remain plain — just text on white paper so as to not draw attention to itself. “Okay,” I replied, trusting his judgment.
Then I began to research what the study’s cost should be. Again, God said, “No.” “But why?” I whined like a child arguing why they should have cookies for dinner. My rebuttal was that this assignment took five years, and it’s not wrong to want to be paid fairly for work.
God told me very clearly this study is to be an open source for all. He said that no one should be denied being able to participate simply because they couldn’t pay for it. I immediately caught his vision and was totally on board to make it available for free.
However, there was a huge plot twist during this time. There was a chapter in the study that he wrote through me, that I couldn’t live out in my own life. Knowing there is a higher accountability for teachers, I laid the study down for another five years. During those years, I willingly crawled onto the operating table and asked God to do spiritual open-heart surgery on me. I asked him to heal me from the inside out.
Why it took five years … I don’t know. Only the focus group and my family knew about this study which was merely a file on my computer for over half of a decade. It had long been lost in life to everyone but me. I laid it down indefinitely until God healed my broken heart that had turned hard and bitter. I didn’t know if the study would ever see the light of day again, but I wasn’t willing to produce something that included teaching written for everyone else, yet I wasn’t able to follow.
Two months before this mission to Guyana, God finished the five-year healing and completely restored my heart and all the details surrounding it. He thoroughly, wholly resolved every aspect of the issue with which I wrestled. It was done.
Fast-forward back to the conversation with the prisoner who had just told me they had nothing to study and God telling me I have what they need …
“You mean the study we wrote?” I asked God in my heart.
“Yes,” God replied.
“Are you sure, God? I mean, are you sure we’re good?” I asked.
“Yes, we are good,” he replied.
“I don’t want to do anything with this study until you give me approval from resolving the issue I had,” I said. “I don’t want to overstep.”
“GO!” he said. “Now is the time.”
When we returned from Guyana, I pulled our leader aside and told her I had this study at home and how it may be a help to these inmates. The team’s leadership read and approved it. In fact, one of the leaders graciously helped polish it to make it publish-worthy. After that, we started printing.
Through opportunities scattered across the globe, this study is now in eight countries reaching a broad-spectrum of folks including the most vulnerable and those marginalized by society. Never in my wildest dreams could I have known this was God’s plan during the ten years this study was being formed.
At this point, none of this seems to have anything to do with my autism testing. But oh, how it does, though I had no idea at the time.
Years before when I was writing the study, I was researching a particular Scripture that pierced my heart.
“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12 New International Version)
God stopped me and asked a question, “Do you treat others the way you want to be treated?”
“Yes,” I replied. “I really try to.”
“But do you treat yourself the way you treat others?” he asked.
“No,” I scoffed. “I treat them much better.” My heart broke at this knee-jerk response. It made me so uncomfortable I couldn’t think about it anymore. This was my first clue something was very broken inside me, but I was not ready in any way to shine light on it. So, I pushed the emotions back down and continued writing.
We’ve traveled to Guyana every year since until the COVID-19 lock down, and the bible study has taken on a life of its own. Local leadership gives them out year-round as well as when we can be there. Personally, I was over-the-moon to have this assignment finished. Ten grueling years of living in the emotional trenches finishing this study and now it was done, and I was free to write whatever I wanted to. I was delighted to feel released from this project. It was an honor to be asked and I gave everything in me to complete it. The task was finished, and I had some children’s book ideas, among others, I wanted to explore. This study was done and done. I was exhausted and exhilarated to give it away for God’s purposes.
However, it was two trips later to Guyana when another conversation with a different prisoner in a different prison flipped my world upside down and inside out.
We were serving in a different prison on the mainland. In a small, dank, concrete building toward the back of the compound, our team was setting up for the first service when an inmate approached me. It’s hard to describe the choking lack of airflow in a solid concrete building with no ventilation system, rather only a few holes in the walls. With maximum humidity and high temperatures, and with no climate control, I found it hard to catch my breath.
The inmate introduced himself and asked me to sit down with him, “Are you the one who wrote this study?”
“Yes,” I cautiously answered, again hoping to remain anonymous in a men’s prison.
“I woke up at 5:30 a.m. and read the entire study cover-to cover and I have one question for you,” he continued.
I immediately thought, “Oh no. He’s found a mistake in it or wants to debate theology. I don’t want to debate anything.” I wanted out of the conversation as fast as possible. Instead, I took another deep breath and guardedly replied, “Sure. What’s your question?”
We sat on rusted, metal chairs, and his thin body folded over itself as his forearms and elbows rested on his thighs, hands folded under his chin. He stared at the ground, with sweat running down his face and dripping onto his pants, and without making eye contact he asked, “Where is the second one?”
Surprised to say the least, I stuttered and asked, “Second what?”
“The second study. Where is it?” he asked again.
Stunned, shocked, and feeling like I would pass out from the heat and our conversation, I began to talk nonsensically and stammered my way out of the awkward moment. My tongue felt swollen and stuck to the roof of my mouth, my heart palpitated, and my hands shook. I really have no idea what I told him and the rest of the time there was a blur.
Dazed by his question, I stood in the back of the room for the service and stared out the hole in the wall in absolute anger. For the rest of the mission, I argued at God. I wasn’t disrespectful, but I felt like either this prisoner was wrong, or I had been left out of the loop. On the plane ride home, I stared out the window at the clouds and complained to God, “There’s no second study! There’s just not! Nope. No way. This one is all done, tied up with a bow. Start to finish it’s complete in and of itself. There’s not a second study. Nope. No. No. No.”
Arriving home, the restlessness I felt from his question churned in my gut. I couldn’t eat or sleep. I was full of angst and didn’t know what to do. Two weeks later, I was walking our dog in our neighborhood still repeating myself that there was no way there was another bible study when I finally stopped talking and softened my heart. I stopped trying to tell God how wrong he and that prisoner were and chose to open my mind, eyes, and ears.
God was incredibly patient with me during those weeks. He let me rant and pitch a fit like a toddler whose been told it’s nap time. He let me get it all out of my system and didn’t hold my emotions against me. He is so merciful. He is also irresistible. His perfect love for imperfect me wins every time.
As my dog and I walked, I said to him, “Okay. Just suppose there is another study, just suppose, because I’m not convinced there is. But if there is, you’ve never told me about it. So yeah, if there is one, you’d have to tell me because I have zero idea what it would be.” I paused and quietly said, “If there is one, Lord, you know I will do it if you ask me to.”
I exhaled a long and loud sigh right there on the street. It felt great to finally stop fighting him, though he wasn’t fighting back. I was only wearing myself out as if boxing the wind.
Suddenly, he said, “There is a second study.”
“What?” I answered perplexed. “Why didn’t you tell me? Why’d you tell that guy and not me?”
“Because I know you. When you get frustrated, you want to quit and do something else. If you knew there were two studies, when this first one got hard, you’d leave it and start the next. I needed you to focus on this one,” he answered.
“You’re not wrong about me, God,” I said sheepishly. “Smart move on your part. So, what is it? What is the second study?”
“On which Scripture is the first study based?” he asked. “Deuteronomy 6:5,” I answered.
“Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” (Deuteronomy 6:5 New International Version)
“Yes,” he said. “Where else is that Scripture found?” I answered, “In Matthew 22 when Jesus referenced it.”
“Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all you heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.’” (Matthew 22:37–40 New International Version)
It was then God opened my eyes and I saw it clearly. “There is a second study, God!” I said excitedly, as if I was telling him something he didn’t already know. “How could I have missed it?”
“I made you blind to it, so you’d finish the first one,” he replied.
“You definitely did, and you were right to do so,” I agreed.
I could hardly wait to tell our Guyana leadership about this news! They were happy to hear it and half-jokingly said, “Maybe not let it take ten years this time.” “I’ll try, but it’s not my timeline,” I answered with a smile.
Who would’ve thought two giant life changes would happen in prisons with people whom society has locked up and thrown away the key? God used the most unlikely places, and two of the most unlikely people, to completely change my life’s course, but isn’t that his way?
“‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the LORD.” (Isaiah 55:8 New International Version)
This Scripture is certainly true. I can never, and will never, figure out his process, but I trust it explicitly.
However, I was utterly unprepared for what writing the second study would entail. It would make me take a huge step toward autism testing, though I was clueless at the time. I had no idea that the past thirteen-plus years would lead me to a psychologist’s office, surrendering myself to days of extensive testing. I’m so glad God didn’t give up on me in the meantime.
Next, the second study and what about it almost made me close my computer forever.